The Penn State hockey team concluded the regular season schedule this past weekend in Ann Arbor. Guy Gadowsky's squad has exceeded the preseason expectations of even the most optimistic hockey fans.
Coming off a 2014-15 campaign that saw the team ranked for the first time in program history and the first player, Casey Bailey, to reach the NHL, it was thought that this would be a rebuilding season. Instead the team has matched the conference record it achieved last year, 10-9-1, and increased the win total from 18 to 20 with the Big Ten tournament beginning on Thursday.
Heading into the final series with Michigan it was possible for the Lions to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Following a pair of losses, that scenario has been taken off the table. Two wins in the Big Ten tournament would not be enough to lift Penn State into a position for the selection committee to award the team a spot. Now the only way the team will reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in its four-year existence would be to win three consecutive games in the Big Ten tournament, grabbing the automatic bid.
To win the Big Ten tournament Penn State will need to defeat Wisconsin on Thursday, Michigan on Friday, then prevail in the championship game on Saturday. This is a tall task but not one that is impossible. The tournament is wide open at this point. The only advantage for the six teams lies with Michigan and Minnesota, who will not have to play on Thursday as they received first-round byes. Outside of that, it's anybody's guess as to how the bracket will unfold.
For the majority of the season Wisconsin floundered in the basement of the Big Ten standings. The Badgers have shown signs of life over the past few weeks, finishing the year 2-1 with huge wins over Minnesota and Penn State. Michigan State is the team with the least momentum heading into the weekend but it has the returning conference player of the year, all-American goaltender Jake Hildebrand. It's not out of the question to imagine a scenario where MSU could win a couple of games.
Ohio State is one of the most intriguing teams in the country. It has a team speed that is unmatched in college hockey. OSU began the year with seven straight losses. For the majority of the season analysts had to make excuses for the Buckeyes, pointing out the many close losses it had and the huge wins on consecutive days with Boston College and Cornell. Over the past seven games the team is undefeated, going 5-0-2 to close out the Big Ten schedule including a win versus Penn State and a series sweep of Michigan a week ago. No qualifiers need to be used for this piping-hot team anymore, it could easily win three games and the Big Ten title.
Michigan and Minnesota are favored to reach the tournament title game. They finished the year separated by just one point in the standings and will have to win two games instead of the three that the other teams would need for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
That leaves our beloved Lions. For the second season in a row the team is limping to the finish line, having lost three straight games. Injuries and a short roster have begun to catch up with the team. This past weekend, in a critical series with a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament on the line in Michigan, PSU was forced to play with only 10 forwards instead of 12 and to move a forward to defense to man a full lineup. It is possible for dinged up players to return this weekend but that will not be known until just before the games begin on Thursday. Goalie Eamon McAdam has been pulled midway through the past three games after being named the full-time starter four games ago. Things don't look so good right now for the blue and white if you simply look at trends and recent results.
That leads us to our fearless predictions. The biggest challenge facing the four teams that play in the first round of the tournament is to play well on three consecutive days. That is a challenge that will only present itself to a team that wins in the first two rounds, i.e., it is not present until Saturday. Like a dazed prize-fighter with knock-out punch power, any of the teams that face a potential three games in three days scenario would take their chances. One play, one bounce of a puck, one individual effort could overcome the long odds facing a team looking to win its third game in a row on Saturday. Any team that makes it to the Big Ten championship game would have a chance to win the game and gain the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
For that reason my prediction is obscenely optimistic. The Penn State hockey team will win the Big Ten tournament and also the first game of the NCAA tournament that it plays the following week. Why not us, eh?
Had someone gone on record prognosticating that Penn State would win 20 games this year prior to the start of the season, it would have sounded equally ridiculous. So prior to the start of the Big Ten tournament, as ludicrous as it may sound, I am going all in. All of the chips are heading to the center of the table, three hands in a row. We're going to do this because we are resilient. We are scrappy and we don't care what people outside of Hockey Valley think we are capable of, we know what we can do. We've got this. We Are Penn State!
MMPK asks you for your prediction. How far will Penn State hockey go this postseason?